Fear and Misery of the Third Reich

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AT: The Private Life of the Master Race; 99%; Germany: A Tale of Horror A: Bertolt Brecht (with Margarete Steffin) Pf: 1938, Paris Pb: 1945 Tr: 1944 G: 7 [of 27] linked one-act dramas; German prose and verse choruses S: Germany, 1933–8 C: (3) 3m, 2f; (8) 1m, 1f; (9) 1m, 2f, child (m); (15) 2m, 1f; (22) 3m, 1f; (23) 1m, 2f; (27) 2m, 1f.(3) The Chalk Cross or The Chalk Mark (Das Kreidekreuz). In the kitchen of a gentleman's house, an SA Man flirts with the young maidservant. A worker, the cook's brother, drops by, and he begins to tease the SA Man. The SA Man shows how dissenters are arrested: provoking the worker into criticizing the Nazis, he jokingly plants a chalk cross on the worker's back. Alone together, the maidservant questions the SA man about money missing from their joint account, and he responds harshly. She now wonders whether she has a chalk cross on her back. (8) The Jewish Wife (Die jüdische Frau). Judith Keith, a Jewess married to a surgeon, is preparing to leave Germany in 1935, as the Nazi attacks on the Jews become more virulent. She phones her friends to wish them goodbye, then rehearses what she will say to her ‘Aryan’ husband. She goes over recent developments: the inhumanity of the Nazis, his being ostracized at the hospital, and the way he too has changed towards her. She hopes he will not lie to her and pretend that her absence will be only temporary. Her husband comes home and, finding her packing, agrees that it is best that she should leave: ‘After all it's only for two or three weeks.’ (9) The Spy or The Informer (Der Spitzel). After Sunday family lunch, the Man, a teacher, complains about the state of affairs under the Nazis. Suddenly he and his wife notice that their young son, who is in the Hitler Youth, has slipped out. Terrified that he has gone to denounce them, they begin to panic and prepare for arrest, the Man pinning on his Iron Cross and considering hanging a picture of Hitler more prominently. The door opens, and their son returns munching chocolate. The parents are still uncertain whether he merely went to buy sweets. (15) Release or Discharged (Der Entlassene). A worker, who has just been released from a concentration camp, visits an old comrade and his wife in their kitchen in Berlin. There is considerable awkwardness between them all, especially when the Released Man's hand shows evidence of torture. The men find it impossible to be open with each other, which the Released Man accepts. (22) The Sermon on the Mount (Die Bergpredigt). A fisherman is dying in his Lübeck kitchen in 1937. Despairing over the misery of his life, he asks the Pastor whether the future will be better. He grows angry over the way Hitler is preparing for war, denying fishermen motors for their boats. He insists that the Pastor should tell his son, who is in the SA, that ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. The frightened Pastor responds by quoting: ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's.’ (23) Job Creation or Providing Jobs (Arbeits-beschaffung). A worker, who has just got a job in an aircraft factory, comes home to find his wife in mourning over the death of her brother, a pilot supposedly killed on a night exercise. Their gossipy neighbour suspects that he died in the Spanish Civil War and then attacks the husband for making bombers. The husband points out that everything that is manufactured is now intended for the war effort, and insists that his wife take off her mourning clothes. The wife angrily rebels, saying that she would rather be put in a concentration camp. He pleads with her: ‘It doesn't help.’ She answers: ‘What does help then? Do something that does!’ (27) Consulting the People or Plebiscite (Volksbefragung). On the day of Germany's Anschluss with Austria in 1938, three socialist workers listen to the cheering Viennese crowds on their radio. They discuss whether there is any point responding to Hitler's referendum over unification with Austria, especially as they have just lost the comrade Karl who composed their leaflets. The two men despair over their powerlessness against the might of the Nazis, but the woman reads out Karl's last defiant message to his son before his execution. Their resolve strengthened, the workers will issue a referendum leaflet containing just one word: ‘no!’When Brecht, as one of the first playwrights to do so, addressed the barbarism of Nazi rule, he abandoned the distancing techniques he had been exploring in order to write a series of short entirely naturalistic scenes (even if the characters still appear as ‘The Man’, ‘The Woman’, etc.), of which the most important are described above. Significantly, Brecht did not attempt to dramatize the Nazis themselves (apart from one or two small-fry SA men and camp guards) and only obliquely depicted the oppression of Jews and dissidents. The focus is on the lives of ordinary Germans, remarkably well observed for someone living in exile in Denmark: the breakdown in trust between individuals, even within the same family, the sense of powerlessness before the overwhelming might of the Nazis, and the difficulty of maintaining integrity and moral courage in these conditions. Although Brecht welcomed attempts to stage the piece in America to support the campaign against Nazi Germany, it was not performed (unsuccessfully) until after the end of the European war in 1945 under the unfortunate title of The Private Life of the Master Race.


Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

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